In this post we will explore the meaning behind the will to power.
The will to power is one of the most fundamental concepts in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is also one of his most complex concepts as it was never systematically defined in his works, leaving its interpretation open to debate. Nietzsche had considered writing a book under the title “The Will to Power” which he announced in the Genealogy of Morals published in 1887:
“These things will be addressed by me more fully and seriously in another connection (with the title “On the History of European Nihilism”; for which I refer you to a work I am writing, The Will to Power, Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values).”
Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §27
However, in 1888, Nietzsche had abandoned the entire project of The Will to Power and decided to write a new four-part magnum opus with his notes gathered in the abandoned project, under the title “Revaluation of All Values” and actually finished the first quarter: The Antichrist. Unfortunately he could not complete this monumental task as he experienced a mental breakdown in 1889, with a complete loss of his mental faculties for the remaining 11 years of his life.
During this time, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth and his friend Peter Gast took possession of all his unpublished notes and edited them to publish The Will to Power, Elisabeth claimed that this text was her brother’s magnum opus. Sadly, she wanted to use it to pursue her personal agenda in National Socialism.
This work has since then been superseded by an expanded second version containing 1067 sections, which includes Nietzsche’s original notes. This is what has come to be commonly known as The Will to Power. Although, it remains a posthumously published work, rather than a text completed by him, it is still an excellent anthology of selections from his notebooks.
We will be focusing on what Nietzsche actually wrote and published himself during his active years, as well as making some references to his unpublished notes where it is appropriate.
Desire for Power: A Psychological Insight
Nietzsche’s early works “Human, All Too Human (1878)”, “The Dawn (1881)” and “The Gay Science (1882)”, provide his first psychological insights on the “desire for power”. He writes:
“The reason why a powerful person is grateful is this: his benefactor has […] intruded into [his] sphere […] It is a milder form of revenge. Without the satisfaction of gratitude, the powerful man would have shown himself powerless and would hence be considered so. Therefore every society of the good, i.e., originally of the powerful, places gratitude amongst the first duties.”
Human, All Too Human, §44
Nietzsche explains that if somebody does something for you, there is an implication that you were powerless and needed his help. You are degraded in his eyes and in your own. Then you thank him, and the implication is reversed: he has done something for you, as if you were the powerful one and he your servant. In that sense, gratitude may be considered a mild form of revenge.
In another aphorism, Nietzsche observes the effort of people to arouse pity:
“[…] ask yourself whether that ready complaining and whimpering, that making a show of misfortune, does not, at bottom, aim at making the spectators miserable; the pity which the spectators then exhibit is in so far a consolation for the weak and suffering in that the latter recognise therein that they possess still one power, in spite of their weakness, the power of giving pain.”
Human, All Too Human, §50
As we can observe, the early Nietzsche does not find this desire for power admirable – more often than not, he used it to explain behaviour he happened to dislike.
This would later change with his Genealogy of Morals, which Human, All-Too-Human laid the seeds for. He explains that the desire for power exists both among the powerful – whose high esteem of gratitude Nietzsche would explain thus – and among the impotent, whose desire for pity Nietzsche construes as prompted by a desire for power.
Here we stumble upon a crucial point: that an apparent negation of the desire for power is explained in terms of the desire for power. Even asceticism, humility, self-abasement and renunciation of worldly power are motivated by this way. He writes:
“Indeed, happiness – taken as the most alive feeling of power – has perhaps nowhere on earth been greater than in the souls of superstitious ascetics.”
The Dawn, §113
In another aphorism, he states:
“Power which has greatly suffered both in deed and in thought is better than powerlessness which only meets with kind treatment—such was the Greek way of thinking. In other words, the feeling of power was prized more highly by them than any mere utility or fair renown.”
The Dawn, §360
The powerful have no need to prove their might either to themselves or to others by oppressing or hurting others, only the weak man wishes to hurt and to see the signs of suffering. This sudden association of power to the Greeks was a decisive step in the development of this conception into an all-embracing monism, as “will to power”.
With these insights, the possibility of a psychological monism suggests itself: all psychological phenomena might be reducible to the will to power. Nietzsche, however, is not primarily in search of any basic principle, he does not jump to this conclusion – yet.
The Origin of the “Will to Power”
In 1883, the concept of the will to power came like a flash of lightning, and in a frenzied feeling of inspiration, Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where the will to power makes its first appearance. It is introduced as one of the three major teachings Zarathustra has to offer, the other two being the Ubermensch and the Eternal Recurrence.
“Only where there is life, there is also will: not will to life but […] will to power. There is much that life esteems more highly than life itself; but out of the esteeming itself speaks the will to power. Thus life taught me.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, On Self Overcoming.
Nietzsche was fundamentally concerned with commanding or exercising power over oneself, not over others. The will to power is a dynamic force in continuous becoming and striving, manifesting itself in the encounter with obstacles. It is the expression of self-realisation, becoming who you truly are.
Zarathustra embodies the struggle of the will to power, as obstacles inevitably give way to resistances. He is completely uninterested in gaining power over others, as he states: “I lack the lion’s voice for all commanding”. In fact, he keeps insisting that the last thing he wants is the ability to command his disciples, but rather that they follow themselves.
Nietzsche summarises the will to power most succinctly in The Antichrist:
“What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.”
The Antichrist, §2
Will to Power and Self-overcoming
The secret that Zarathustra has learned from life is self-overcoming, the characteristic of the Ubermensch. As we have seen, the key problem is self-commanding. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, many people embody what Nietzsche calls the “Last Man”, the antithesis of the Ubermensch, those who are all alike and follow others – a herd mentality – too afraid to do anything extreme and remain in mediocrity all their lives. They do not take risks because of fear or laziness.
However, Nietzsche does not write for them, but for that small percentage of people who want true fulfilment and happiness out of life. The only way to achieve the highest level of happiness is to take risks.
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!”
The Gay Science, §283
There’s almost a zero percent chance that you won’t experience some form of extreme pain in your life. Nietzsche tells us to not run from this reality, but to face it and overcome it, in order to grow.
Think of the metaphor of climbing a mountain, there are obstacles and difficulties ahead, one can even risk falling from the heights and injuring or killing oneself. However, once you reach the top of the mountain, you’ll be able to see the most beautiful views imaginable.
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, On Reading and Writing
Those who do not overcome their obstacles, will miss the most amazing moments of life and live mediocre lives.
Will to Power and Sublimation
Nietzsche’s concept of sublimation is key to understanding the will to power. He believed that a sexual impulse, for example, could find satisfaction in the attainment of something else, such as creative spiritual activity, instead of being fulfilled directly.
One of his main critics of Christianity is that it did not sublimate the instincts but rather repudiated them. As the instincts are what makes us human beings, it is against life itself – contrary to the will to power, in which instincts are the main drive force in humans.
This contrast of the abnegation, repudiation, and extirpation of the passions on the one side, and their control and sublimation on the other, is one of the most important points in Nietzsche’s entire philosophy.
The man who can develop his faculty of reason only by extirpating his sensuality has a weak spirit; a strong spirit need not make war on the impulses: it masters them fully and is—to Nietzsche’s mind—the acme of human power.
He points out that most of the great philosophers were not married and explains the matter as follows:
“As for the “chastity” of philosophers, finally, this type of spirit clearly has its fruitfulness somewhere else than in children; perhaps it also has the survival of its name elsewhere, its little immortality”
Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §8
And in his notes, he writes:
“Making music is another way of making children”
Will to Power, §800
Will to Power as Dualistic
The will to power as the only interpretation also supposes its opposite, namely, decadence. Decay must be explicable from the striving for growth, just as weakness must be comprehensible in terms of the principle of strength. He writes:
“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”
The Gay Science, §12
Human beings do not seek pleasure and avoid displeasure, they seek an increase of power which is confronted by displeasure as an obstacle to their will to power. It is therefore natural for human beings to have a continual need for displeasure in order to grow.
Will to Power vs Will to Existence (Nietzsche contra Darwin)
The will to power opposes the prevalent notion of the “will to existence”. He writes:
“Indeed, the one who shot at truth with the words ‘will to existence’ did not hit it: this will – does not exist! For, what is not can not will; but what is in existence, how could this still will to exist! Only where life is, is there also will; but not will to life, instead – thus I teach you – will to power!”
Part 2. On Self Overcoming. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche considered himself an Anti-Darwin. Darwin proposed that we evolved through natural selection whereby one’s ability to survive will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations.
Herbert Spencer, a follower of Darwin, coined the well-known phrase “survival of the fittest”, however unlike Darwin, he believed that all living beings seek first and foremost self-preservation. Darwin does not propose self-preservation, but rather that behaviours that are advantageous are the ones preserved in natural selection.
Thus, Nietzsche misattributes self-preservation to Darwin.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:
“To will to preserve oneself is the expression of distress, of a limitation of the genuinely basic drive of life which aims at the expansion of power and in this willing frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation […] The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle always turns upon superiority, upon growth and expansion, upon power, in accordance with the will to power, which is just the will of life”
The Gay Science, §349
What is clear is that Nietzsche’s survival is not merely self-preservation, but is primarily struggle for increase of power. Everything strives for power, for the most, unconsciously.
Beyond Good and Evil has the most references to the “will to power” in his published works, appearing in 11 aphorisms. Nietzsche reiterates that life is not self-preservation:
“Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”
Beyond Good and Evil, §13
Furthermore, in his notes, he writes:
“It can be shown most clearly for every living thing, that it does everything, not in order to preserve itself, but to become more.”
Will To Power, §688
Just as a tree will naturally seek to grow its roots and gain resources, so will a person seek to develop his health, wealth, strength and status – which are all expressions of his will to power.
Will to Power vs Will to Live (Nietzsche contra Schopenhauer)
Schopenhauer had written long before Darwin about his concept of the “will to live”. Nietzsche had read Schopenhauer extensively in his youth and he became a sort of father figure for him, although he later grew apart from his philosophy. As he would say:
“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “On Bestowing Virtue”
Nietzsche rejected the “will to live” in favour of his “will to power”. Schopenhauer’s Will is a metaphysical concept inspired by his readings of Kant’s noumenon or the unknowable “thing in itself”, which exists independently of human sense and perception – it is the opposite of phenomenon, which refers to any object of the senses, such as sight and sounds.
For Schopenhauer, the Will is the cause of all suffering, as human life is a ceaseless struggle for satisfaction. We are constantly pursuing objects of desire to become happy, but when we achieve them, we do not become satisfied – it merely liberates us from our previous pain. We remain in a constant state of suffering and restlessness, until we inevitably die. Thus the pessimism of his philosophy.
Nevertheless, he does believe that we can achieve momentary bliss and peace of mind whereby the Will ceases its desire of striving. This comes from aesthetic experiences, such as music and art.
However, the only way we can free ourselves from our miserable existence is through the total negation of the Will and lead an ascetic life , in order to minimise suffering.
Nietzsche, as we have seen, embraces suffering, as it is precisely what helps us grow in life. Pain is necessary and not to be devalued. Since obstacles cause pain, we must overcome them so that we can advance our power. As he says in one of his most popular phrases:
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §8.
Will to Power vs Will to Truth (Nietzsche contra Philosophers)
As an experimental philosopher, Nietzsche sought to break with the delusion of the metaphysicians who believed that they could solve all of life’s riddles with one stroke, with one word, and become “unriddlers of the universe”. He claims that philosophers’ “will to truth” (i.e., their apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective, absolute truth) is actually nothing more than a manifestation of their will to power.
“Will to truth – you call that which drives you and makes you lustful, you wisest ones? Will to thinkability of all being, that’s what I call your will! You first want to make all being thinkable, because you doubt, with proper suspicion, whether it is even thinkable. But for you it shall behave and bend! Thus your will wants it. It shall become smooth and subservient to the spirit, as its mirror and reflection. That is your entire will, you wisest ones, as a will to power; and even when you speak of good and evil and of valuations. You still want to create the world before which you could kneel: this is your ultimate hope and intoxication.”
Part 2. On Self Overcoming. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Will to Power and Metaphysics
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche tells us to suppose that we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will, which includes everything from procreation to nourishment, if so:
“The world seen from within […] it would simply be “will to power” and nothing else.”
Beyond Good and Evil, §36
Some interpreters have emphasised this view of the will to power as a metaphysical general force underlying all reality, making it more directly analogous to Schopenhauer’s will to live. This brings some confusion as Nietzsche is against metaphysics.
Many Nietzschean scholars have insisted that the will to power is less metaphysical and more pragmatic than Schopenhauer’s, while Schopenhauer thought the will to live was what was most real in the universe, Nietzsche’s will to power can be understood primarily as the key concept of a psychological hypothesis, as well as a useful principle for the purpose of the individual’s life.
However, we cannot deny that Nietzsche views it more and more as a basic force of the entire universe in his later life. What can we make of this contradiction?
Martin Heidegger’s work continues to have an enormous influence on how Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power is interpreted – as a traditional metaphysical unity. However, there is a crucial distinction to be made in terms of metaphysics. Wherever Nietzsche rejects metaphysics it is only the Platonic-Christian tradition in which “Being” is understood as fixed and static, such as Plato’s world of forms or the Christian concept of heaven.
Nietzsche’s will to power symbolises an eternal Becoming, thus it does not possess a substantial, durable character. It is a monism in which even being is conceived as becoming. Being is thus not opposed to becoming, but rather becoming includes being. Keeping this in mind, it is possible to talk about the metaphysics of the will to power.
A crucial point must be made in Nietzsche’s concept of power, it is characterised by intrinsic relationality: power is only power in relation to another power. In other words, there are no first things, which then have relations with each other; rather, things are what they are by virtue of their relations.
Nietzsche’s concept of power implies that reality is dynamic – there is no fixed cause that can be separated from that causation. This structure implies that power must be understood as a necessary striving for more power. Power is a necessary striving to expand itself and is only power insofar as it can maintain itself against other powers and strives to predominate over them.
However, speaking about “a will to power” is misleading, for all reality is will to power. It is not an independent unity, it is always a variable and relational multiplicity held together, and those wills to power exist only as a multiplicity of wills to power, and so on ad infinitum. It is always at war with itself.
It is a single basic force whose very essence it is to manifest itself in diverse ways and to create multiplicity— not ex nihilo, but out of itself.
In Nietzsche’s worldview nothing has existence and meaning outside the “game” of power relations. Because of this, there is no withdrawal from this “game”.
This chaos is not a mere burden that we have to overcome to survive or make our life easier, it also plays a very positive role. It is the basis of all creation and creativity, without it nothing novel could emerge.
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue, 5.
To conclude – Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power is not primarily a metaphysical principle. His central concern is with man, and power is to him above all a state of the human being. The projection of the will to power from the human sphere to the cosmos is an afterthought.
Wealth and military might were never signs of great power to Nietzsche’s mind; and he realised fully that power involves self-discipline and self-overcoming, this is, in fact, the central point of the will to power.
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NIETZSCHE: The Will to Power
The will to power is one of the most fundamental concepts in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is also one of his most complex concepts as it was never systematically defined in his works, leaving its interpretation open to debate.